This was supposed to be under an lj-cut but that doesn't seem to want to work this morning, so the hell with it :p( Read more... )
There are so many vital pieces of a winning story, but perhaps none more important than building character. Let's look at the difference between characterization (what we all do when we start to imagine our characters and decide on things like age, height, weight, food allergies) and character, the art that is much harder to achieve and can only be done within the story itself.
You've done all the background work for your main characters. You know which side of the bed they sleep on, which breakfast cereal they can't live without, how long it's been since their last dental cleaning. You've got character down pat, right? Maybe, maybe not. The myriad details of what makes your characters who they are falls under the umbrella of characterization. Characterizing your fictional people is the necessary first step, but because it's just a collection of traits, it alone cannot provoke empathy in your readers. You must build character.
Let's look at some brief examples (keeping in mind these are kept super-short [and exaggerated, I might add] to fit comfortably into the newsletter...you of course will weave your magic and make it as long and as subtle or as dramatic as it needs to be):
Jack slid his briefcase under his desk and booted up his computer. He yawned. Monday again, he thought. Well, only five days until the weekend. And the chance for another great week. Jack always liked to look on the bright side.
Mr. Taskmaster stopped by Jack's cubicle on the way back from the coffee machine. "Nice job on the Meyers report last week, Jack."
"Thanks, Mr. T," Jack said. "I'm glad you liked it."
The boss nodded. "Sure did. You have good attention to detail. You're careful. I like that. That'll be sure to come up at your next evaluation."
Jack swelled with pride and anticipation. Maybe he could afford that new car next quarter after all. He loved to drive with the windows down and the stereo loud, singing along or humming when he didn't know the words. But the CD player in his old car had just broken; because he couldn't eject the CD that was in there, he had to listen to ABBA's greatest hits over and over and over, an endless loop. Although "Dancing Queen" certainly was catchy, it was on the repetitive side, he finally decided.
Mr. Taskmaster patted Jack on the back, nodded with admiration toward Jack's neat cubicle and the dust-free photo of Jack's mother, and ambled down the hall to his office. Jack pulled a paperclip away from the magnetized heap and fastened some loose papers with it. Everything in its place, he thought with satisfaction. That's an orderly world.
Now let's shake up the snow globe we've placed Jack in and peek in at him again:
Jack tried to wipe his briefcase off with a piece of rough brown paper towel he nabbed from the restroom (the last piece), but the glob of unidentified goo he must have picked up on subway puddled on his shoe instead. Monday, he thought. Only Monday. I'm frazzled already. Of course, the fact that Lola kept him up all night wringing her hands, pacing the floor, accusing him of being totally different from the fiancé who wooed her didn't help. He got maybe ten minutes of shut-eye, only one eye shut at a time.
Jack cringed as he felt the vibrations of footsteps and heard the slurp of coffee outside his cubicle. Mr. Taskmaster leaned against the cubicle wall, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it wasn't a real wall and therefore alarmingly creaked and swayed under his weight. "I never saw such a mucked up project, you know." He waved a batch of papers at Jack's face. "The Meyers report. You're officially on probation, Jack. This whole thing needs a redo." Mr. T. took another noisy slurp.
Jack wanted to knock the coffee out of his boss's hands more than anything just then, but he knew he couldn't afford to lose another job. The mortgage company was talking foreclosure, the bank had already towed away his dream car last month, and Lola had managed to charge five grand at Macy's on the for-emergencies-only card. "I know," Jack said, gulping back his pride and glancing at the still-fluttering report sheepishly. "I'll fix it."
"You think I'm trusting you with it again?" Mr. T. roared. "HAH! I wouldn't trust you to sort my paperclips."
Jack swiveled his chair away from his boss and clenched his fists.
"And another thing." Taskmaster leaned in close, his coffee breath daggers up Jack's nose. "I don't like the rumors I'm hearing about you and my niece."
"Niece? I never even met your niece!"
"Well, it sure looked like you met her, when you were sitting on her desk last week, feeding her gingersnaps."
Jack gasped and tried to cover it with fake laugh. Shoot, she's his niece? The friendly new person at the reception desk? He groaned inwardly. This week was too long already.
Aside from the obvious, in what way do these examples differ?
In the first example, we get a compilation of character traits (Jack is good with detail, needs a new car, is very neat, is liked by his boss). But those character traits don't add up to making Jack feel like a fully-realized character. In other words, those details can only characterize Jack; they can't make him become a true character.
But isn't getting to know a character just a matter of detail? Yes and no. It's true that the more specifics we have about a character, the more clearly we can imagine that character, the more easily the fictional person can become real in our heads. However, if the details don't amount to more than a string of benign specifics, then the reader won't be motivated to care about the character, which means the reader will either shut the book or mentally check out of the story before real character development ever takes place. The key to getting your reader to feel invested in your character is trouble.
In the second example above, Jack is loaded down with trouble: financial trouble, future-wife trouble, job trouble. Not only do we as readers identify with trouble (we've all faced it and are sure to face it again), but authentically difficult situations make for compelling reading and, furthermore, they serve as a means of testing characters, letting them show us what they're made of. All the finely wrought details in the world, if they're just there for the sake of information and don't push your character up against the proverbial wall, can't develop a player in your story like well-chosen trouble spots will.
The reason for the emphasis on well-chosen? The predicaments the characters face must feel big enough that they trigger lots of strong emotions (like fear, despair, anger, confusion, sorrow), but not so big that they are absolutely unsolvable. For instance, if your main character's goals are to single-handedly halt global warming and world hunger (and bring about world peace while he's at it), your reader will lose interest because it's clear those problems are too big for the character to truly resolve. When there's no question in the reader's mind about how things might turn out (in this case, the reader will know the character can't possibly fix things), then eventually there's no reader. Your reader will give up and flick on the TV, even if it's to be assaulted by more Jon and Kate nonsense.
And then, once you establish a real dilemma for your character (a story-worthy problem that won't go away on its own), you need to have your character make choices within that sticky situation.
As McKee says: "TRUE CHARACTER is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure--the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character's essential nature" (101).
And it's the "essential nature" the best fiction probes. Character is so much more than tidy lists: it is an exploration of what your character will do under stress. That's the point where your readers and your characters connect. (To read more about the importance of testing your characters, revisit my December newsletter on that topic: December 2008 Write Through It: How will your characters deal with disaster?)
Let's listen to McKee again: "Pressure is essential. Choices made when nothing is at risk mean little. If a character chooses to tell the truth in a situation where telling a lie would gain him nothing, the choice is trivial, the moment expresses nothing. But if the same character insists on telling the truth when a lie would save his life, then we sense that honesty is at the core of his nature" (101).
To revisit Jack #1, he might choose to get his own cup of coffee next, or start to work on the next assignment, or dust the picture frame yet again. Who cares? Although we have to make thousands of little inconsequential choices like those during the course of our days, that aspect of real life doesn't make for riveting fiction.
But Jack #2's choices are meatier, more unpredictable, and more interesting. Does he break it off with his fiancée? Does he stay away from the sultry niece? Does he look for another job or try to earn Mr. Taskmaster's respect? Because his choices will have some consequence in an already pressured environment, we are more apt to care about them and, by association, the character making the choices. And getting readers to care about your characters is much more than half the battle.